Rodney Gardner and Hanna Cheek  in The Persians
(Photo © Ryan Jensen)
Rodney Gardner and Hanna Cheek
in The Persians
(Photo © Ryan Jensen)
The most ambitious of the current crop of "protest plays" in New York is the Waterwell production of The Persians...a comedy about war with five songs. Loosely based on the oldest surviving play in the Western canon, this adaptation remains true to the basic plot of Aeschylus's Greek tragedy but otherwise modernizes it as a combination of a reality TV show and nifty nightclub act. The result is a sometimes jarring, occasionally sophomoric, but always mesmerizing indictment of the war in Iraq.

Consider the parallels: The ruler of Persia is Xerxes, who attacks Greece with a force of 900,000 soldiers to finish a war that his father, Darius, failed to win. Xerxes was considered a poor imitation of his father, and history proved that to be true when he led the strongest nation in the world to ruin: His army was destroyed by the Greeks.

This clever piece of work, written and performed by its four-person cast, begins with a Fosse-style song and dance number that smartly sets up the show that follows, but then it bumps along unevenly for about half of its 70-minute length. Fortunately, director Tom Ridgley and choreographers Kate Mehan and Lynn Peterson pull things together: After the messenger (played by Ridgley) delivers news of the Persian army's terrible defeat, the Queen (Hannah Cheek) summons the ghost of her late husband, Darius (Rodney Gardner), and the play catches fire. Gardner is electrifying as the late cool-cat emperor who can't believe that his son screwed everything up.

The play culminates with the return of the defeated Xerxes (Arian Moayed), who admits his tragic error and begins to recite the names of the beloved Persians lost in the war. The recitation quickly becomes a woeful lamentation of the soul; listen closely and you'll hear, interspersed with the names of Persians, such names as Michael, Peter, Isaac, and Lawrence. This deeply moving scene brings all the pieces of the play into focus. With The Persians, Waterwell has artfully staked a claim on our collective conscience.

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Brian Morvant and Drew Hildebrandin Screen Play
(Photo © Max Ruby)
Brian Morvant and Drew Hildebrand
in Screen Play
(Photo © Max Ruby)
Shuffle Off to Buffalo

In Screen Play, one of two politically-oriented shows now at the Flea Theater Downstairs, A.R.Gurney imagines a possible future in which the Republican right wing has so destroyed America that people are fleeing the country by the millions. For the first time in our history, the borders are closed to keep people in rather than keep them out. On top of that simple construct, Gurney audaciously -- and hilariously -- overlays the plot of the 1942 movie classic Casablanca. Famous lines from the film ricochet through this smart and satisfying satire set in Buffalo, the place where people wait, and wait, in the desperate hope of crossing the border to freedom in Canada.

Performed as an elaborate staged reading, the piece is only a little more than an hour long. Our hero, Nick, is an alienated saloonkeeper who once worked on the Al Gore campaign and fell in love with Sally, a fellow worker. Sure that Gore would win, they planned to leave on Election Day for a celebratory trip to Paris -- but, with the outcome of the Florida election in doubt, Sally never showed up at the airport. Fifteen years later, Sally arrives at Nick's bar, a dive famously frequented by disgruntled Democrats. She has come with her husband, Walter Wellman, a left-wing former TV anchorman whom the Republicans don't want to let into Toronto to make a series of speeches.

If you've seen the movie, you know where this is going. The more you love Casablanca, the more you'll enjoy these jokes -- and the more you hate the Republican right wing, the more you'll enjoy the play. Either way, Screen Play is clever, gleeful fun, thanks in large part to the crisp direction of Jim Simpson and to actors who make the most of their mock characters; in particular, Drew Hildebrand is laconically comic as Nick, and Nedra McClyde sparkles as the narrator. Here's looking at you, Mr. Gurney.

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Strike Three

Paul Boocock
(Photo © Theo Stanley)
Paul Boocock
(Photo © Theo Stanley)
You would never guess from its title that Boocock's House of Baseball has a political purpose, but this solo show -- also at The Flea -- is a satirical curveball thrown high and inside at the Bush administration. Paul Boocock, the show's writer and star, uses baseball as a massive metaphor for everything that isn't kosher about George W. Bush and his cronies. The reminder that Bush owned and operated the Texas Rangers baseball team before he entered politics helps smooth the way into this sometimes clever conceit.

Boocock is an accomplished actor. Working with director Mary Catherine Burke, he has found ways to visualize his story through action. A highly stylized piece with lighting by Jeff Croiter and sound by Jake Hall, Boocock's House of Baseball plays out a series of scenarios in which baseball lore is used to explain what's happening in Washington and Iraq, and in the media. Sometimes, Boocock swings and misses; other times, he hits one over the fence. You've got to give him credit because he's up there hacking away.

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[To contact the Siegels directly, e-mail them at siegels@theatermania.com.]